Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Land to the North - Chapter Six

(Blogger's Note: Earlier chapters follow this.)

Early the next morning we rowed across the Union Strait. There were small islands around it, some of them barren wastes and others covered with brush, bushes and trees. We landed on some, walking inland a few hundred yards before returning to the boat. None of them showed any sign of having a warm, concealed entrance to the Inner Earth. Each was just a frozen land with windswept plateaus waiting silently for the first warming rays of the late spring. We saw only a few animals, mainly in the distance, and the tracks of fewer large predators.

The whole day was spent slowly working our way across the Union Strait, spotting islands and checking them out. We ate a quick, cold lunch on one of the small islands, not taking time to start a fire but instead, sitting among the branches of a toppled tree for shelter. When we finished, we climbed back into our boat and continued rowing to the north.

By nightfall we hadn’t made much progress. The constant starting and stopping, not to mention the brisk winds, slowed us considerably. We finally landed on a large island with a single small hill in the center that seemed to dominate the island. There were a few short, scraggily trees and the occasional bush. We found enough wood for a fire for warmth and ate another meal prepared from our jerky.

It had been a long, hard, cold day, even though it was late spring. There had been little reward for all our work. We both were tired and we fell asleep early. As the sun climbed higher in the sky the next morning, we were both ready to go again.

By noon we had made our way across the strait and were close to the land of Victoria Island. Eric and I argued briefly over the next move. I suggested that we put into shore and make our way across the island on foot. Eric wanted to use the boat to scout the shoreline, working our way to the north. If we saw anything of interest, we could always land to chase it down.

As I studied the map, I could see the wisdom of Eric’s plan. We could carry much more in the boat rather than in our backpacks so we could continue farther to the north.

The currents suggested that the tree that Ramsey reported could have come from the northen edge of Victoria Island, or maybe even farther north. Since it was a warm weather tree and was found in an icy sea, it was probable that it had been growing on the edge of an island that had a warmer climate than anything we were finding here. We shouldn’t miss anything by using the boat. Travel would be simpler and maybe even faster that way.

"Yes," I conceded. "We should use the boat as long as we can."

So, we turned toward the west and continued the journey. Each of the days took on the sameness as the last. Rocking in the boat during the day and then putting into shore at night where I lay on the hard ground, the sensation of the wave motion still with me, trying to keep warm.

We rounded the Wollaston Peninsula and explored Prince Albert Sound. We crossed the Amundsen Gulf and surveyed the Minto Inlet. Finally we found ourselves in the Prince of Wales Strait, Victoria Island on the east and Banks Island on the west. With Banks Island so close, we alternated between it and Victoria Island, exploring each for a couple of hundred yards behind the beach and searching the open ground with binoculars.

And each day we saw fewer signs of life. We would see a bird overhead, or a fish in the water. The snow revealed the footprints of animals, but we rarely saw the animal. Of course there were no signs of human habitation anywhere close now. We were too far to the north and too far from anything that could support a family or a village.

And each day we were farther north. We broke out into the Viscount Melville Sound. We beached out boat on Russell Point late in the afternoon several days later. The sun was toppling toward the horizon and I was cold. Cold from the water sloshing in the bottom of the boat and cold from the wind that roared at us unabated. I was cold from sleeping on the ground and cold from eating cold food.

Annoyed with the lack of progress, I carefully unfolded the map, holding it low so that the wind wouldn’t rip it from my hand and said, "You realize we’re miles north of the farthest reach of any of Ramsey’s maps or photographs. We’ve really ignored what he photographed for us."

"I know," confessed Eric, "but I don’t think he was able to get far enough north. He needed fuel and a base. He could range much farther in a day than we can, but I believe he only eliminated the mainland of Canada. We have to push on."

"Melville Island is almost seventy-five miles across open water," I said. "We’ll never be able to navigate that distance in our boat."

I pulled my compass out of my pocket and opened it. Given where we were standing, with open water in front of us, and land behind us, I knew where north was supposed to be, but the compass pointed to the northeast. We were close to the magnetic north pole and that was going to make navigation across open water tricky at best.

"So, what do you suggest? asked Eric. "That we give up?"

"No," I said. "I think that we should explore Victoria Island more fully before we try anything else. I mean, it’s right here, in front of us."

Eric shook his head sadly and asked, "You really think we’re going to find our entrance on Victoria Island? If it was there, someone would surely have stumbled across it before now and we’d know exactly where it was."

"But there are stories of entrances in California," I countered. "No one has stumbled onto them and let the world know."

"David," he said, "this isn’t going to be easy. I never said it was, but if we’re going to find anything, then we’ve got to continue to the north, to Melville Island. Once we’re there, it’ll be simple to hop from island to island, but we have got to cross the Parry Channel."

I sat down then, on the cold, frozen sand, the wind tearing at my clothes and studied the map. I could see that Eric had a point. To continue around Victoria Island would only take us farther from the islands to the north. If we were careful, we could make it and although we didn’t have sufficient water for a long crossing, there was enough ice floating around us that water wouldn’t be a problem for us.

"Tomorrow then," I said.

Eric stood with his back to me, his eyes on the open water to the north where Melville Island would be if we could have seen it. "Tomorrow," he said. The word was torn from his lips by the cruel biting wind.

"Tomorrow," he repeated.

The next morning was a warmer, clearer day. We set out, taking turns rowing. By late in the morning, we were out of sight of land and I found that unnerving. The compass pointed to the east now and that made my head spin. I knew which way north was, but the compass didn’t care about what I thought I knew. It continued to point in the wrong direction.

We didn’t talk much, having long ago exhausted most of the topics. I wished that we had gotten a better boat with a motor on it, but then I hadn’t expected to spend so much time on the water. I finally said as much to Eric.

"I know," he said. "I didn’t have any idea that these islands were separated by such great distances. At least that was the impression I got from my father. I should have studied the map more closely."

It was at that point I realized just how amateurishly we had put this expedition together. We should have been studying the maps of the area we planned to explore. I hadn’t though much about it because I believed that we would be on the mainland of Canada, far beyond the arctic circle but still on the main land of the continent. Now we were hopping from island to island, driven on by the knowledge of how far we had come already. It would take weeks to get back to civilization and all the time we’d put in already would be wasted.

When night fell, we continued to row, and while Eric slept in the bottom of the boat, I was trying to stay warm and dry by rowing. As Eric dozed, I watched the luminous dial of the compass sitting close at hand. The stars blazed overhead. The air was crisp and cold, but the effort of rowing kept me warm.

I watched shooting stars flare into brightness and die quickly, more in one hour than I had seen in my whole life. Brilliant streaks of light in a rich variety of color.

There was almost no sound around me. Just the gentle slap of the water against the bow of the boat and the quiet, rhythmic breathing of Eric as he slept on.

A quiet, dark world that held no dangers except for the cold winds that blew constantly and tried to rob the body of its warmth, and an ocean that could swallow us completely. I felt myself grow drowsy and felt my eyelids shut. I would jerk awake as I relaxed and began to fall over. For minutes, my heart would pound and I would think that it would be hours before I would fall asleep again.

And then, suddenly, Eric was shaking my shoulder, shouting at me. I opened my eyes and found myself surrounded with a gray mist that obscured the bow of the boat only a few feet from me. Eric, although only inches from my face, was a shadowy shape.

"David," he asked when he saw my eyes fluttering open, "are you all right?"

I sat up and said, "I’m fine. I just fell asleep. That’s all."

"For how long?" he asked.

I reached up and rubbed my eyes. My hand brushed across the stubble on my face. More than could have grown in a few hours overnight. It felt like several days growth.

"I don’t know," I said.

Eric helped to a sitting position. My bones ached and I rubbed a sore spot on my shoulder.

"You notice anything?" he asked.

"You mean other than this thick fog?"

"Yes," he said. "Other than the thick fog."

"I’m hungry," I said. I felt my stomach rumbling as if I hadn’t eaten for a couple of days. "I’m thirsty too."

He waved an arm and said, "It’s warm. Much too warm."

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